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How A Bike Race Saved A Montana Cafe

Mountain Bike Race
AP
Mountain Bike Race

We are 50 miles due west of Billings, Montana, just about where the double yellows break. The sign says, 'Welcome to Rapelje', and it has a few buckshot dents in it.

We're not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here. "We were dying, and there wasn't anything slow about it." So says Mike Erfle, a man whose family has been ranching land around Rapelje, population about 100, for decades, and a man who has been instrumental in saving the town. "We had 65 kids in our school, K through 12, and as long as we have that school, we'll have a town," he says, walking with me up a dirt road through the acres of wheat that surround the place.

Agriculture has been a roller coaster all across the United States for years now, big corporate farms replacing smaller family ones. And as the families go, so do the small towns that used to dot the country's heartland. Rapelje was slated to be just another one of those. But then came the mountain bikers.

In 1998, the community decided that what it really needed was a gathering place, a center, a core, a heart. They have a post office, a church, and that school, but they didn't have a cafe. A place to chew the fat and eat your peanut butter toast, or Jell-O with marshmallows in it. So as a community they bought an empty building, there were plenty, and opened up the Stockman Cafe, named after the only bank that would give them a loan for it.

Now what? Well, everybody in town ate in the place once or twice a week, but as Mike Erfle will tell you, "We can trade money amongst ourselves forever and it won't do no good, we have to have an influx of people!' When the cannon goes off you'll see your 'influx." The cannon is the starting signal for the 24 hours of Rapelje, a mountain bike race through the pastures and hills that surround the town.

It was Chris Viet's idea. He works for the state recreation department and is an avid mountain biker: "They showed me the land the had around town, they told me about all the farmers and ranchers that were willing to build the course, and I told them that if they built it, they would come. They told me it was the second dumbest idea they'd heard. But they did it anyway."

And they did come. Thirty mountain bikers the first year, 130 this year, the 7th. The entry fee is 60 dollars and all the money raised goes to support the cafe, keep it running. The course covers 11 to 15 miles depending on the year, and a good solo rider will cover 200 miles or more in the 24 hours, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday. A team can cover over 300 miles.

But as one biker says, "We don't come for the race. We can go to any race, pay our money, and watch it go to pay the winner. Here, the race is the community, it's the people."

People who man the check points, who cook pancakes in the middle of the night for the competitors, who dance till dawn in front of the cafe to the strains of 'Born to Wild' played by a local band as bicycle lights flicker like fire flies across pastures and down roads in the dead of night. If you count the support teams that come with each rider, Rapelje 'exploded' to over 500 people this year. People happy to spend money in the cafe, happy to help support a small rural town.

By the way, Rapelje is actually growing now. Thanks to telecommuting and an increasing desire for a 'simpler' lifestyle, people who work or live in Billings are moving out into more rural areas. There will be over 75 kids in the school this year.

Oh, if the bicycle race was the second dumbest idea they'd heard, what was the first? A gopher hunt. Glad they went with the bikes.

MOA is on it's way to Le Barge Wyoming. I wonder if they have gophers there?

Questions? Comments? mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com